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How to get out of the Nuclear Swamp

February 4, 2015

This week I read an email exchange that made me think. Actually, it worried me deeply. In one of the messages an old friend described the Nuclear Weapons Convention – an idea many of us fought for since the early nineties – as a “fairy tale” and a “distraction”.

The authors of these mails are not government representatives from nuclear weapon states or their allies, although you might be forgiven for thinking so. Both those descriptions have been used by states that want to brush aside the idea of a convention summarily, as if only for the very stupid or naïve. No, these were colleagues.

Since the strategy of pursuing a so-called Ban Treaty has been advocated by the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear weapons (ICAN), at least by its International Steering Group and staff, a fierce debate has been raging between two groups. These are principally the younger and the older generation, although that doesn’t quite fit, since there are older disarmament campaigners decidedly in favour of a Ban Treaty, including myself. Probably there are also younger campaigners who are sceptical of the concept of a Ban Treaty. The email exchange I describe above made it clear to me that this debate is being conducted in a manner that is neither conducive to change, nor is it respectful to the work others have done before that the Ban can build upon.

Of course, just banging on about a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention that was written nearly twenty years ago is not an effective strategy and very few of us would advocate it. About fifteen years ago I realised that the Model NWC had become synonymous with certain states that were not being taken seriously and many governments put it aside without even looking at it. Many of us understood at that time that we needed a new grouping that would cut across the board and unite those in middle power countries seriously pursuing disarmament. The New Agenda Coalition became the new driving force at that time. Reservations about the Model meant that it was necessary to separate the idea of a convention from the Model we, as a movement, had created – to let go of it. However, it was a useful document to show what such a convention might look like and many fruitful discussions with governments centred around the Model as a discussion paper.

As a mother, learning to let go of things you brought into the world is the hardest lesson to learn. But it is the most important. However, letting go of the Model does not mean that the idea of a convention should be rejected. That would be the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

The Nuclear Weapons Convention is simply another name for a treaty banning and eliminating nuclear weapons. It remains the goal for all of us: for ICAN, Mayors for Peace, Abolition 2000, PNND, Middle Powers Initiative and all the other International Disarmament Organisations that I work with and some more. What it will look like at the end of the day is still wide open. But that is not really what is under discussion here.

The real debate is about how to get to elimination. (That is another phrase that could have come from the mouth of a government, I think even Germany has said something like it, although they are advocating the step-by-step process). ICAN has put the idea on the table that we do not have to wait for the possessor states to be able to take action. In fact, this is really what we have been doing: banging at the wrong doors. Trying to persuade the smokers to introduce a smoking ban, when it is the non-smokers who are the real mass we need to mobilise.

When Ron McCoy proposed the idea of an international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons to IPPNW all those years ago, this is what he said: We need a campaign like the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. At the time, many were immediately sceptical – nuclear weapons are different from landmines, they said. Nuclear weapons are instruments of power, political weapons. But the point of the landmine campaign was to make the humanitarian dimension a priority, so that any security or political advantages were superseded by the catastrophic humanitarian effects. This is what we meant by changing the debate. By stigmatising the possession of an unacceptable weapon you disempower those who wield them. Politics can change, the effects of the weapon do not. This is the idea behind humanitarian disarmament and is the strategy that is underlying the process that began as the humanitarian initiative and is now transforming into the humanitarian imperative.

What we term the “Ban Treaty” is a synonym for beginning a process to eliminate nuclear weapons by creating a critical mass of like-minded states ready to go forward with a ban. It is important that these states have already renounced nuclear weapons and do not believe them to be of any political value. In declaring nuclear weapons to be banned, they strengthen their commitment to the NPT which states that it is illegal for any countries to develop or acquire nuclear weapons and those who possess them should get rid of them (albeit without setting a time-frame).

So what is stopping this group of states forming? In my view, it is the same problem that we are facing in civil society. The majority of states are supportive of a convention, meaning that they expect a commitment from the nuclear possessor states to negotiate before embarking upon a process. Cuba declared in Vienna that they would try to force this process to begin by introducing a resolution to the UN General Assembly this year, to establish an open-ended working group with a negotiating mandate to begin work on a convention. While this is music to some ears, the very fact that it is Cuba that is the proponent could mean that –  if the working group is established – it will be boycotted by the nuclear possessor states (perhaps with the exception of India and Pakistan).

Should, however, states come together with the purpose of negotiating a convention and then find themselves unable to negotiate with the nuclear possessor states – what then? This is the moment where they can agree to go forward with a ban. It may, indeed, not be a “shortcut” to elimination, as the allied states are so fond of saying. It may take just as long to get to a full convention as before, who knows? There is no empirical evidence to show that one path is shorter than the other. But a ban is in itself a major legal step that will have the effect of stigmatising nuclear weapons, in the same way that chemical weapons, although banned and not yet eliminated, are. Remember the outcry over the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the resulting drive for elimination.

The analogy with smoking is one of my favourites, having given up smoking more than ten years ago. I remember how my sister locked me out of the house while I was having a secret smoke on her veranda. I felt like a pariah, ringing the bell to come back in. And the look on her face was one of disgust at what I had been doing (probably also because of the smell). Once there is a ban in place, even though cigarettes are still with us, the non-smokers have the law on their side to live in a smoke-free atmosphere. Yes, it makes the relationship with our smoking friends more difficult – but each time someone gives up, we can have a helluva celebration to welcome them into the international community.

The purpose of this blog is to advocate that we – as non-governmental actors – should not mirror the divided world of nuclear disarmament diplomacy, but we need to hack our way through the jungle and find a path that we can offer states as an alternative to the plodding step-by-step process that has led them into a deep swamp that they cannot get out of. Changing the debate was the stick that can help lift them out of the mud. It is important that they keep their eye on the goal which is the elimination of nuclear weapons and unite to close the legal gap, as the Austrian Pledge puts it. A ban would be a powerful instrument that would give enormous strength to nuclear weapon-free states to lead the way. Nuclear possessor states must then choose to stay behind and sink in the nuclear swamp or follow their lead to a nuclear weapon-free world.

All change has to begin within ourselves. We cannot always wait for others to change the world.

  1. February 4, 2015 5:17 pm

    Thank you, Xanthe.

    Like you I would also emphasize that the question is not one of which is “better” in some abstract sense, a ban or a convention.

    A ban certainly has to be part of any convention, in any case.

    It’s just that, as John Burroughs stated again in the LCNP newsletter, there “have never even been any multilateral negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons since the 1968 nonproliferation treaty.” Even when relations between adversarial nuclear weapon states were much better, in the 1990s, there were no such negotiations, nor any plan to have them. Now, and for the foreseeable future, the prospects for disarmament by means of negotiations involving nuclear weapon states are nil, as far as we know. We might wish them otherwise but we don’t have any data to suggest they are.

    Relations between the U.S. and Russia may eventually thaw again. Or then again they may not. We need not speculate about this, because in the meantime we can act now to ban nuclear weapons, a process which nuclear weapon states cannot block unless we let them do so.

    I do think it is helpful to understand that the U.S. in particular, the state I know pretty well, will block every attempt to negotiate a nuclear weapons convention. The U.S. has the means to do so and the government is totally unified about the need to retain a powerful nuclear deterrent. There is no opposition in government — none whatsoever — and none in Congress either. So the State Department has no disarmament brief and never has had one. Such matters are decided at much higher levels than, say, Rose Gottemoeller. Her own views, whatever they may be, as well as those of anyone else in the U.S. government that any international NGO will ever see at the U.N., simply do not matter one way or the other.

    It’s more effective to block disarmament negotiations indirectly or subtly. They will do it by stringing people along — diplomats, NGOs — with empty promises, sophisticated propaganda, and practiced social engineering. This process is very well established, so normal and expected that it is often utterly invisible. Many good people and many states will allow themselves to be deceived by such temporizing talk. You can count on it. Delaying negotiations is tantamount to blocking them.

    At this point in history and for the foreseeable future, progress toward nuclear disarmament will not occur in any venue that gives the nuclear weapon states the ability to block progress. If given any opportunity whatsoever that is exactly what they will do. They will look for ways to delay, distract, redefine, waste resources, and divide (understanding, of course, that perfect unity is unattainable, and not the goal).

    In the 1990s there was a reasonable chance, or there appeared to be a reasonable chance, that the end of the Cold War would increase the influence of disarmament factions inside and outside the U.S. government. Those factions have been defeated in the U.S. for now. On top of this, there has been a tremendous shift in the past 18 months, with state propaganda emerging unopposed from major newspapers like the New York Times.

    So nobody should feel that their efforts in the 1990s were wrong or futile, or a mere fantasy. They were reasonable at the time and laid the groundwork for what is happening today — which, on the international diplomatic front, is the progress we are seeing toward a ban.

  2. February 4, 2015 3:29 pm

    Thanks for this, Xanthe. I think all these issues you’re raising are terribly important. So here’s my take:

    I’ve never seen the ban treaty as a substitute for a nuclear weapons convention, rather as a measure that creates political space for the convention—something we’ve been unable to achieve by lobbying for it strictly on its merits. The idea of the convention, and its necessity, and even the particulars that are spelled out in the Model NWC are just as valid today as they were 20 years ago. And there’s the problem. The fact that the convention or something like it is what we’ll return to once the nuclear-armed States actually sit down to negotiate the elimination of their nuclear weapons is beside the point until they decide to do it. And they’ve been swatting all that aside with impunity for all those 20 years. What the ban treaty does is shift the leadership for abolition to those who actually want to lead. And, just maybe, it can compel the nuclear-armed States to negotiate elimination as the result of someone else’s leadership.

    The genius of the Austrian Pledge is that it offers to bring together all stakeholders in the effort to “stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate” nuclear weapons. While it doesn’t explicitly mention a ban treaty, it’s hard to avoid that inference in the call to close the legal gap regarding nuclear weapons. With that gap closed, and a ban treaty in place, the nuclear-armed States become outlaws. How to use the ban treaty as a political tool to help them become law-abiding citizens (and how to write it so that it’s a tool that can do the job) is a question we have to address as we go along, and you’re right to point that out.

    Your observation that we seem to be fighting among ourselves over competing strategies is disturbing and more than a little sad. No one has a guaranteed path to the elimination of nuclear weapons, and we have no way of knowing which strategy will finally provide the breakthrough that gets us there. All we can do is adopt the approach that inspires and excites us the most, and that we think offers the most promise. For me, and obviously many, many others, that’s the HINW initiative, the ban treaty, and ICAN. It’s important to respect, support, and talk with our friends and colleagues who haven’t embraced the ban treaty, or who have doubts about it. One measure of a strategy’s effectiveness, however, is the number of people who get on board with it and become energized by it. By that measure, ICAN has pulled off something amazing in a few short years. In 2010 I wouldn’t have thought this possible. I do think it’s fair, however, to question approaches that we’ve been stuck in for years and that have either run out of steam or never managed to build any steam up in the first place. You’re right (again!), though, that we need to do that without trashing our friends in the process. As you and Alice have observed, the ban treaty idea is already getting things unstuck. (The nuclear-armed States, in the meantime, are coming unglued!)

    As one of the old codgers who’s threatened with being put out to pasture, I’m just as sensitive as you are to dismissive comments from our brash youth contingent (please…my tongue is lodged firmly in my cheek). Just the other day I had a very friendly exchange with a very committed and hard working campaigner of the under-30 persuasion, where we both acknowledged that our starting positions on the “age” question left a little bit to be desired, and that each of us really did need what the other had to offer. So in the future, Xanthe, I promise not to hold your youth against you.

  3. ignasi orobitg gene permalink
    February 4, 2015 2:34 pm

    Tambien incluir al hermano pequeño en la prohibición por que lo de Fukushima es lo mismo pero en camara lenta.

  4. February 4, 2015 7:39 am

    I agree, Alice. The more civil society lines up behind a ban, the more allied countries are pushed to take a more decisive position on nuclear disarmament. It wasn’t until Germany became worried about a ban that they started to talk openly about the goal of a convention. But we need to be much clearer about what a ban can (and cannot) do.

  5. February 4, 2015 7:31 am

    Great article Xanthe! So illuminating! Another reason why the ban treaty may help to get us unstuck is we can use it to convince the countries cowering under the US nuclear umbrella in NATO and Asia, as well as those European countries with US nukes on their soil, that it’s time to come out from under and join the world in banning nuclear weapons, as a way to hasten the day when they will actually be eliminated.

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